Pedagogy - Scrap exams to create schools of the future

11th October 2013 at 01:00
International summit outlines radical blueprint for education

Schools worldwide should drop all grades and conventional exams so as to remain relevant to young people in the future, a panel of international education reformers has said.

These radical proposals were just two of a raft of recommendations to come out of a global education conference staged last week, which brought together future thinkers, academics and educationalists from six continents.

The event - Equinox Summit: learning 2030 - set out with the explicit aim of producing a blueprint of how schools should look and function by the year 2030, when children born today will be graduating.

Hosted by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, the summit's conclusion was that, in less than 20 years, "knowing facts will have little value", meaning that schools will have to scrap conventional examinations and grades and replace them with more "qualitative assessment". This would measure a student's all-round ability, rather than testing their knowledge in a particular subject.

"These assessments are determined collaboratively by the learner and others, such as teachers, peers, parents and sometimes mentors outside the school," the blueprint says. "Personalised assessments are a regular, even daily, part of students' learning process, although particular attention may focus on milestones such as completion of a major project." Progression through education based on a student's age should also be abolished, it adds.

The summit attracted the likes of creative thinking guru Guy Claxton; Greg Butler, former head of global education for Microsoft; and academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Arizona State University in the US, Australia National University and Finland's University of Helsinki.

The end product was a call for a complete overhaul of how school systems worked, moving away from what was described as an "antiquated" system geared toward the 19th century.

The themes of the conference were at odds with current education policy in the US and the UK, where core knowledge and traditional methods are increasingly being emphasised. But the vision chimes to an extent with curriculum changes taking place in other countries, not least the highly successful Singapore, which is moving from a more traditional education system to one with a greater focus on holistic child development.

Professor Claxton, research director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and professor of learning sciences at the University of Winchester, said that the five-day summit produced some very "radical" ideas. But he dismissed the notion that the blueprint could be viewed as a "1970s liberal regression", adding that he believed such messages were necessary as a counterpoint to prevailing policies around the world.

"We don't want the instrument of assessment to drive policy," he said. "We need forms of assessment that support rather than cut across education. Plus, we must consider what skills young people will need in the future - will every child need to know calculus? Perhaps not. But they might need to know how the inside of their computer works, or the languages needed to code."

Mr Butler, who founded the social enterprise organisation Collaborative Impact after leaving Microsoft, said that it was time for a total rethink of how schools functioned.

"We assume 30 students in the same grade, one teacher and four walls is ideal. But what would happen if we threw out that model?" Mr Butler asked. "The current model of grade levels and ages is flawed. We need to progress students through high school, not by their ages but by the stages they're at."

Jennifer Groff, a graduate researcher at MIT and vice-president of learning and program development at the Learning Games Network, said that the ideas suggested were already being implemented in "innovative" schools around the world.

"We've tinkered and tweaked for decades and we have the same system," Ms Groff said. "If you want different outcomes, you have to rethink all parts of the system and redesign them."

But Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the University of London's Institute of Education, said that education systems were unlikely to alter current teaching methods.

"The death of the traditional classroom has been announced periodically for decades and yet it persists," he said. "I think the traditional classroom will persist for years to come.

"Tests and exams are a way of checking whether we can retrieve what we have learned. What is perverse is that we use poor-quality tests to make high-stakes decisions about individuals. We have to stop using tests for both finding out what students know and holding schools and teachers to account."

Pressing issues

Equinox Summits are held every two years and bring together the world's leading thinkers to discuss pressing global issues. The 2011 event concentrated on energy; this year it was the turn of education.

The recommendations for education include an end to grades and conventional tests. The blueprint says that students should be grouped by ability rather than age, and teachers should serve as guides or "curators of learning".

Formal, traditional classrooms should be abandoned and students should learn through "cross-disciplinary and often collaborative projects", which would give them skills more suited to the workplace.

Students' "habits of mind" should also be developed, so that they have an "awareness of individual, local, and global contexts", the summit found.

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